Theme doesn’t matter!

Theme doesn’t matter!

That provocative title isn’t true – until I explain what I mean.

Sure board games have themes, including Senet and Peter Coddles and Star Trek Ascension. Even many historical abstracts have themes, like chess and daldøs. But many abstracts do not have themes, like checkers and seega and salta.

But in more modern tabletop games, a theme is generally the first level of evaluation. For example, modern games are usually ABOUT something (like Kim-Joy’s Magic Bakery or Potion Explosion or Trekking the National Parks). Considering the name, the artwork, and the sales pitch on the box, one can get a pretty good impression of what the game is about, how it works, and whether you want to try it.

Personally, I’m not too crazy about combat, spell-casting, hack-and-slash games. I rarely even pick up the box at the FLGS if it’s all monsters and weaponry.* I’m not interested in “acting” games or goofy make-a fool-of-yourself party games. There are a few hidden-role games I like, but those are not really at the top of my list. I’m not into athletic themes (except racing maybe) or gigantic space-conquest epics that take days to play, or games with lots of card text, iconography, card combos and arcane terminology to learn.

I like trading games, worker placement, engine building, and puzzle-solving games. I like cooperative adventures, not-too-heavy deck-builders, resource management stuff. Some “point salad” games are fine, and hidden information in moderation. Again – look at the box, read the notes, and I can generally tell if it’s my cuppatea.

But, I’ve been fooled! I like Gloomhaven! There have been a few war-theme games like Shogun or Cyclades that have a resource-management aspect to them that I like. The little “Age of War” dice game has nothing at all to do with warfare. If I hadn’t been introduced to it by a friend, I would not have picked up a copy.

When I start playing a new-to-me game, the thematic elements and mechanics (if it’s well designed) will help me learn the game. But after I learn the game and get a strategic overview, the theme doesn’t matter. I don’t feel like I’m directing giant corporations against each other or moving cowboys around a frontier landscape. I’m just playing the game. Cute dragons or cartoon gangsters are not the game (to me) – the game is the game.

So through the experience of the “book and its cover” cliché, I’ve learned not to jump to a conclusion based on theme alone. I let myself try stuff I normally wouldn’t to see what the game is about. Theme doesn’t matter.

*NOTE: But some of the artwork is wonderful.

It’s not hoarding if you have them written down!

It’s not hoarding if you have them written down!

“It’s not hoarding if you have them all written down.” Sound familiar?

I have a lot of games. That is to say, “lots” of games (plural). Games of all kinds, sizes, ages, themes, etc. And they’re all on shelves…more or less.

Are they sorted by any of these aspects? It seems reasonable that they should be—or perhaps alphabetical by name? Or publisher? Or primary mechanics? Well…nope. Every couple of years I try to reorganize so I can find what I’m after in there. But it never lasts.

Here’s my sad tale:

I have one shelf piled high with Word Games, a pair of shelves that are all Star Trek games, and one shelf dedicated to 3M Bookshelf Games. (Seems appropriate, doesn’t it.) 

There’s a tall bookshelf plus several other (low) shelves of kid’s games. 

There are a few shelves dedicated to party-style games, and those “stacking things until they fall over” games. Next to that is a shelf that mostly has race games, and another of trivia games. 

Shelves that are modern games that get played fairly often, and shelves of not-so-great games that are quite dusty. A couple of shelves are just versions of Monopoly and Clue, and a plethora of chess sets. 

I have several bins of card games, and bins of games in bags, and another bin that contains games without containers. 

There are fantasy games, strategy games, and CCGs on another shelf, plus the “shelf of shame” games (still in shrink wrap). There are a couple of shelves which are conflict-centered games (mostly multi-player). There are also segregated stacks of railroad games, wild west games, and spy-themed games, too.

I have five or six shelves of antique games (don’t touch these, kids) and a handful of dexterity games (I’m not so good at dexterity games). 

There are shelves for my original designs, prototypes, and the Peg Pastimes games (of course). These are near several shelves full of books about games.

Organized? Sort of.

How do you sort your collection? Is there a “Dewey Decimal System” for table-top games? Intriguing idea. Maybe I should get working on that.

Who’s on First?

Who’s on First?

How do you choose a first player? A few common methods are: Rock-Paper-Scissors (one-two-shoot); flip a coin (heads, I win – tails, you lose); high roller with dice used in the game (or high spin if it’s a spinner); the person who chose the game, or owns the game, or knows how to play (if others don’t); if it’s a special occasion, the first player is the one who the party is for.

Many games offer ways to choose blindly from a playing piece hidden in a player’s fist (for two-player games) or drawn from a hat or a cup (if there are more players).

One of my favorites is a little iOS app called “First Player” (pretty clever, huh?). I have a version on my iPad mini. All players touch the screen, and the app randomly picks a finger.

In recent decades, games often specify how to pick a first player. In Citadels (Fantasy Flight Games), the rules specifically state that the oldest player goes first. (Good for me!) Some other games state the opposite.

Often a game will specify the first player by a mini-challenge, such as “the player who most recently visited a foreign country” or “whose birthday is nearest today’s date” or “who owns the most shoes.”

Other games that are often played in a series may specify that the loser of the previous game will go first in the next.

Sometimes the first player in a round or phase of a game may have a distinct advantage, so the rules might specify some conditions placed on the way the privilege is assigned. The first player, and sequence of the other players as well, might be based on player scores or some other achievement during a previous round.

And sometimes, the first player privilege can be claimed, bought, or won in an auction round. The question being “how much is that first player advantage worth to you?” There are times you might want to go last in a round. Do you really want to go first?

When learning a new game, I like being later in the turn sequence so I can watch how the turns go, and how decisions are made by the others before me.

So who goes first? The chicken or the egg?

Why Do I Collect Table-Top Games?

Why Do I Collect Table-Top Games?

“So many games, so little time.”

Heard that before, have you? The sentiment is very much linked to a disease that I am afflicted with. It’s a common malady known by the acronym GAS which translates as “Game Acquisition Syndrome.” It is likewise related to, and often found alongside the dreaded FOMO. (Fortunately, I do not suffer that one.)

Here is the real core of the matter (I think): When I get a game, I enjoy it on several levels. Whether it’s shiny new or faded and worn, in pristine condition or one step away from the trash bin, I certainly don’t look at it like most people do!

  • Being a graphic artist, I study the design and consider the decisions made regarding the visual and tangible components of the game. The use of art and typography, how it is organized for clarity and function within the game. What works well and what falls short of success? Also, what’s the visual impact of the product on the store shelves? (In that regard, the advertisements are equally as fascinating!)
  • As a craftsman, I look at the manufacturing process and the print techniques used in the game. I’m fascinated by the level of technology employed, such as the format, lithography, screen printing, mechanical assembly, materials and adhesives, ceramics, woodworking, sometimes metalwork, paints, dies, and coatings, and later the prolific use of plastics.
  • From the historian’s perspective, I consider what a game tells me about the society in which it was played. This historical analysis includes the players, of course, but also the designers, artists, marketers and sellers of the game. The subject matter and its target audience are major factors. A game reflects a significant amount of information about public and private life, social attitudes and values, sins and virtues. And the rules and challenges of the actual game play are revealing. That entails not only the goals and theme of the game, but also the balance of chance and strategy, the assumed intellectual level of the “target demographic,” and the amount of time and attention required of the players. Also, how the game was treated by its owners is significant, too. All this paints a picture of the society like a time capsule.
  • What’s the significance of the game in terms of my collection? Does it complete a set (like the 3M Bookshelf series or Drueke’s travel games) or fill a missing link in a game’s evolution over time (like the many versions of crossword games over the generations). Sometimes a theme fits the collection, such as games about 17th century North American colonialism or Star Trek. Sometimes it’s the style of the game, such as hidden-role games, dice games, or deck-building games. All of these aspects definitely affect the decision to acquire a game.
  • Is it fun? This is the last item in the list. In my experience, most games are not fun. Some games in my collection are completely unplayable, in fact. But “fun” is a totally subjective concept, and if I were to segregate my collection into “fun” and “not fun” sets, it would be quite revealing, I think. (This is a subject for another time.)

I shared a video some time ago that was a tour of my game room, showing a bit of my tabletop games collection. It’s reached well over 1700 games now, spanning the decades from the late 1800s until today.

Q: “Have you played all those games?”

A: Nope. If I play one game each day, that’s over 4.5 years to get through the collection. Based on my GAS affliction, in 4.5 years there will be at least another few month’s worth of games added to the total by then. Of course, that also assumes that I could find someone to play a game with me every day for years to come!

And there are the “Shelves of Shame” — home to dozens of games still in the shrink wrap. I just had to have ‘em. Just had to.

But it’s not a serious problem. I can quit any time. Just stop and walk away.

No really.

Board Games as Time Machines

Board Games as Time Machines

It’s fairly obvious that I’m very much into historic and vintage board games. My game collection and YouTube video series all attest to that. And you may also be aware that I’m an advocate of games in the classroom, for a number of reasons.

Recently, I was invited to contribute an article to the Wandering Educators website on the subject. (The link to the full article is near the end of this page.) In that article I spoke about games as “time machines” – a way to experience a bit of a bygone era or a foreign culture. I have been a participant in living history events for most of my life, from medieval recreation through the 1920s, lately focused on the latter half of the 19th century.

The best way to learn about a historical subject is to immerse yourself in the trappings of that culture. Wearing the clothes, experiencing period surroundings, using the tools and utensils of the period—and playing their games. Thus, in the hands of a skilled interpreter, games serve as a sort of time machine, and a window into different cultures.

Games have been a part of human society since the very roots of civilization. Playing an ancient or vintage game can be a connection to those distant cultures. From the 5,000-year-old Royal Game of Ur to a vintage game from the middle of the 20th century, the values and attitudes of a society are reflected in how they play. Many of these games are included in our Peg Pastimes series.

The Royal Game of Ur

You can read the complete article here: “TimeTravelGameTable”.

A game is not a game unless the players make meaningful decisions

A game is not a game unless the players make meaningful decisions

“A game is not a game unless the players make meaningful decisions.”

That doesn’t mean that those decisions need to be complex or multifaceted or have far-reaching consequences. The simple decision to roll those dice once more, to drop a token onto a space, or to play this card or that card…that’s plenty.

Aside from the fundamental decision to participate at all, there are a host of gambling games with no decision-making: Glückshaus (pure chance dice game), Bingo (where the challenge is perception alone), the card game War (luck of the draw), and the popular L-C-R (Sorry… I just don’t get the charm of that one at all). There are hundreds of race games that are naught but roll-and-move (which were all the rage 100 years ago). Picking lotto numbers…now there’s a Gamer game! (J’employe le sarcasme.)

Assuming that you are seeking meaningful decisions in your table-top hobby, there is a wide range of decision types to consider, from the simple to the sublime.

Let’s begin with a simple roll-and-move race game. One pawn per player, one randomizer, one linear track of any number of equally valued spaces—as close to a one-dimensional game as you can get. Each player (in turn) generates a random number, moves their pawn accordingly, and then the next player does the same. Barring the interplay of any supernatural forces, “luck” will determine the winner, and you have wasted however much time it takes to “play” this “game.”

The three types of decisions

“Wait just a minute here,” you say. “I cut my teeth on those shallow ‘Uncle Wiggley’ race games!” Yes, yes – and so have we all. (Perhaps nowadays it’s disguised as “Unicorns in Happyland” or something.) I will grant that these decision-less games have value. They teach turn-taking, and patience, and sportsmanship, and (if properly taught) taking responsibility for one’s stuff. But this example is merely an “activity” – not a game.

There is a psychology about types of decisions, but I’m not talking about anything so high-falootin’ as all that. I’m probably missing some important scientific stuff, but for the sake of game-playing, let’s go with this list.
1. Strategic decisions
2. Tactical decisions
3. Pre-probability and post-probability decisions

There are sometimes multiple factors that go into these decisions – a host of conditions, probabilities, personalities, known- and unknown-information. I’ll boil it down to a few simple illustrations, and you can complicate it all you like when we’re done.

1. Strategic Decisions

Strategic decisions only make sense when the game allows for a choice in how one achieves victory. Some games (like the race game described earlier, for example) have only one path to victory: get to the end first. There can be no “Gamer Challenges” in that one. In my opinion, a good game must have more than one path to victory, with options and ways to apply one’s own playing style.

Consider the ancient game of Nine Men’s Morris. A player wins by forming seven 3-point patterns on the geometric game board before his opponent can. Aside from the advantage of the opening move, players are on equal footing, all information is known. Some players focus on the opening, some on the clever herding of the opposing stones into isolation or entrapment, some on the formation of later patterns. For the really experienced player, after the first stone is placed, there are only a few (maybe one) winning strategy to be employed. Like tic-tac-toe, the game can be “solved.”

There’s a tipping point when real strategies come into play. The number of pieces, the features of the game board, the interplay of cards, asymmetrical powers, etc. More decisions and more variables mean more strategic choices.

Theme also introduces meaning to the process – the end game counts for something. The best games (IMHO) have a “story arc” to them – the beginning, the middle, and the end – where strategic variances come into play. (A tip of the hat to Geoff Engelstein for teaching me that one.)Regardless of the individual moves being made, a game that accommodates strategy will have the most depth, replayability, and passion. The players’ own personalities will be manifest in their playing style, and wits will be brought to bear.

2. Tactical Decisions

Tactical decisions are more immediate, dealing with the present situation or with events directly linked to the present move or play. Tactical decisions are components of and guided by strategy and can be “mini-strategies” in themselves – building blocks of the bigger picture.

Tactical decisions, while guided by strategy, are often reactionary and dependent on external circumstances. Tactics are like tools in your toolbox – the implements one uses to pursue one’s strategic objectives. In games where the strategic objectives have been dictated to you, the tactics are the meat of the game, and the quality of the game will depend on the richness of its tactical decisions.

3A. Pre-Probability Decisions

Pre-probability decisions are those made before some random factor is generated, or before some hidden information is revealed. For example, “I’m going to try that, let’s see if this die-roll helps or hinders that effort.” It means that you will commit to an action, then generate a non-specific outcome. (I didn’t say “random” because these outcomes are not necessarily random at all.) This is the essence of all “push-your-luck” games, like Sid Sackson’s classic “Can’t Stop.”

3B. Post-Probability Decisions

Post-probability decisions are made after the non-specific outcome is revealed, as in “I have this die-roll result, I will do something with it.” For example, when playing “Sorry” (originally published by Waddingtons in 1929) you draw your card then decide which pawn to move.Either (or both) of these decisions can add a tremendous amount of tension and flavor to a game, in limited doses. Too much randomness ends up looking like chaos. Conversely, too much predictability can be just plain boring.

Some games, of course, have decisions within decisions, and consequences leading to further consequences. How much of this is enough is a matter of your personal preference… and your “confusion threshold.” At some point, a game can become a chore, and leave the fun far behind. I guess we all need to decide how much deciding is enough.